The Houston Rockets have cultivated the closest thing to a blueprint for beating the Golden State Warriors: a switch-heavy defensive scheme that drowns opponents in a barrage of threes.
As evidenced by the most recent iteration of the Western Conference finals, that blueprint may not possess a role for Cal men’s basketball alumnus Ryan Anderson.
To provide a bit of context, Anderson joined Houston in July 2016 to the tune of four years and $80 million. It was a bit of an overpay, but the league’s salary cap leaped from $70 million to about $94 million, giving organizations room to splurge.
In his first season, Anderson transitioned to a starter role after being a reliable bench scorer in New Orleans. He sacrificed shots in favor of James Harden and Eric Gordon, but he was still the team’s third-leading scorer at 13.6 points per game. On a team that indulged the 3-pointer like no team before, Anderson shot 40.3 percent from distance on seven attempts per game, the second-best mark of his career.
It was a respectable inaugural season for Anderson, but from a dollars-and-cents perspective, however, it was hard to ignore that the Rockets paid $18 million for Anderson to put up solid-but-not-great numbers.
When the Rockets traded for Chris Paul’s services prior to the 2017-18 season, the long-term implications of the contract began to set in, as Anderson, Paul, Harden and Gordon alone accounted for more than 85 percent of the salary cap at the beginning of this past season.
Houston did have the benefit of Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker’s rather cheap deals and Clint Capela being on his rookie deal, but the writing was on the wall for Anderson’s deal to backfire.
Midway through the 2017-18 season, Anderson’s second with the Rockets, the shoe dropped.
Heading into an early February game against the Brooklyn Nets, Anderson had played in 50 of the Rockets’ 51 games, starting all but one. He was averaging 10.2 points per game — the drop being due to the addition of Paul and rise of Capela — in 28.4 minutes per game.
Anderson exited that game against the Nets early because of a sprained right ankle, then proceeded to sit out Houston’s next game against the Miami Heat. When Anderson returned to action, he had lost his starting job to Tucker.
While Tucker didn’t have great performances against Brooklyn or Miami, he brought a toughness and defensive versatility that Anderson could not provide.
Along with Paul, Ariza and Capela, Tucker provided the Rockets with a formidable defensive front that could better hide Harden’s deficiencies.
Anderson received a healthy amount of playing time upon the initial transition to the bench and was notably more efficient. In his first six games as a reserve, Anderson averaged 9.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest in 23.2 minutes per game while shooting 41.9 percent from deep.
Just as he hit his stride, he was sidelined for nine straight games because of a hip injury. After returning from injury, his playing time especially plummeted, as he played only 17.3 minutes per game in his last nine games of the season.
When the dust settled, Anderson ended his season having averaged 9.3 points per game, the lowest since his sophomore season, and with a player efficiency rating, or PER, of 12.6, the lowest of his career. For reference, a PER of 15.0 denotes an average player.
The postseason was no better for Anderson, as he totaled 95 minutes and 19 points over 11 games, not seeing the floor in six of Houston’s games.
Anderson had a fine 12-point performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but aside from that, he was not a factor. Excluding this performance, Anderson only scored 7 points in about 77 minutes.
All of that at a price tag of $19.5 million.
Not only did Anderson’s production not match his value, but his bloated contract may have resulted in the loss of Ariza in the ensuing offseason.
Ariza, an invaluable piece for Houston’s blueprint for stopping the Warriors, signed a one-year, $15 million deal with the Phoenix Suns this summer, a price tag the Rockets couldn’t match. If Anderson made, say, half of his actual deal, maybe Houston would have retained Ariza while still having room for Paul’s extension and Carmelo Anthony.
Should all things remain the same, Anderson is set to earn $20 million from the Rockets next season and $21 million the season after that. With Houston having already re-signed Paul and Capela and set to sign Anthony, the team will be well into the luxury tax come opening night.
Murmurings have gone around the league that the Rockets may move Anderson to the Sacramento Kings in order to create cap flexibility, a move that could potentially be a win-win. The Kings, a rebuilding young squad, have the leverage to command a draft pick or two in exchange for taking on Anderson’s salary while the Rockets create some cap space. Plus, Anderson would have the opportunity to play in his hometown of Sacramento.
Regardless of where Anderson ends up next season, when healthy, he’s an efficient 3-point shooter who can pack a punch off the bench.
But for the foreseeable future, Anderson’s name will be connected with his contract rather than his capabilities on the floor.